Archive for Books

Orient(al[ism]) in East Asian languages

Cortney Chaffin writes:

Today I've been corresponding over email with a colleague of mine at XYUniversity who organized an exhibition of Korean art to open tomorrow. Yesterday he sent out a description of the exhibit in which he used the phrases "oriental landscape painting" (in contrast to Western painting) and "oriental sensitivity" to describe the aim of the artist (to demonstrate "oriental sensitivity" in painting). I don't allow my students to use the term "oriental" in my art history classes, not only because it is a complex and loaded term, but I have first-hand experience of it being used as a racial slur in the U.S., so it makes me uncomfortable.

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Literate programming and reproducible research

From the Scientific and Technical Achievements section of last week's Academy Awards:

To Matt Pharr, Greg Humphreys and Pat Hanrahan for their formalization and reference implementation of the concepts behind physically based rendering, as shared in their book Physically Based Rendering.  Physically based rendering has transformed computer graphics lighting by more accurately simulating materials and lights, allowing digital artists to focus on cinematography rather than the intricacies of rendering. First published in 2004, Physically Based Rendering is both a textbook and a complete source-code implementation that has provided a widely adopted practical roadmap for most physically based shading and lighting systems used in film production.

I believe that this is the first time that an Academy Award has been given to a book. And this (ten-year-old) book was written in a way that deserves to be better known and more widely imitated.

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The Franco-Prussian Readings

Wicky Tse and Cheng Fangyi both sent me this photograph taken in a bookstore located in the central business district of Xinjiekou, Nanjing, China:

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The Gladwell pivot

Below is a guest post by Mark Seidenberg on Malcolm Gladwell's recent book, David and Goliath, which promotes the idea that apparent disadvantages are often actually advantages, and in particular suggests that dyslexia might be be Good For You.


This piece is commentary on a chapter about dyslexia in Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book. I don’t follow his work closely, and the book is being reviewed and critiqued everywhere, but I thought the chapter merited a response from somebody, like me, who studies dyslexia and works with local advocacy groups for dyslexics and their families. The chapter deserves s a line-by-line analysis; what I’ve written only mentions the main issues. The document incorporates several key points that were handed to me by Maryellen MacDonald, for which I thank her, a lot.

__________________________Mark Seidenberg
__________________________Language and Cognitive Neuroscience Lab
__________________________University of Wisconsin-Madison

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Signifying the Local

I just found out about this new book on local languages in China.  Judging from the abstract and table of contents, it looks very interesting and promising: Signifying the Local: Media Productions Rendered in Local Languages in Mainland China in the New Millennium. The publisher's blurb:

In Signifying the Local, Jin Liu examines contemporary cultural productions rendered in local languages and dialects (fangyan) in the fields of television, cinema, music, and literature in Mainland China. This ground-breaking interdisciplinary research provides an account of the ways in which local-language media have become a platform for the articulation of multivocal, complex, and marginal identities in post-socialist China. Viewed from the uniquely revealing perspective of local languages, the mediascape of China is no longer reducible to a unified, homogeneous, and coherent national culture, and thus renders any monolithic account of the Chinese language, Chineseness, and China impossible.

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The Story of Ain't

Next Tuesday, David Skinner's The Story of Ain't is coming out in a new paperback edition, with a new epilog. I'm happy to have this occasion to post an enthusiastic recommendation: You should immediately run out (virtually or physically) and buy this book, in any of its editions.

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Cupertinos in the spotlight

About seven years ago, in March 2006, I wrote a Language Log post about "the Cupertino effect," a term to describe spellchecker-aided "miscorrections" that might turn, say, Pakistan's Muttahida Quami Movement into the Muttonhead Quail Movement. It owes its name to European Union translators who had noticed the word cooperation getting replaced with Cupertino by a spellchecker that lacked the unhyphenated form of the word in its dictionary. Since then, I've had occasion to hold forth on the Cupertino effect in various venues (OUPblog, Der Spiegel, Radiolab, the New York Times, etc.). Now, Cupertinos are getting yet another flurry of publicity, thanks to a new book by the British tech writer Tom Chatfield called Netymology.

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Once Bookstore

This beautiful establishment in Amoy (Xiamen) 厦门 (facing Taiwan across the strait that separates the PRC from the ROC) is perhaps the only pro-democracy (private) bookstore in the People's Republic of China — I applaud its moral courage. In this article about Once Bookstore, we find the following photograph of a sign in front of the store and the cover of a book that is most likely sold in it:

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How to be ignored (?)

Last year, Alexander Clark and Shalom Lappin published a book under the title Linguistic Nativism and the Poverty of the Stimulus. The background of the book was a course on "The Poverty of the Stimulus, Machine Learning, and Language Acquisition", which the authors gave at the LSA Summer Institute at Stanford in 2007. In the preface, the authors thank an impressive collection of linguists, computer scientists, psychologists, and philosophers "for helpful discussion of many of the issues that we address in this monograph".

An hour-long discussion between the authors and Chris Cummins was just released as a podcast in the New Books in Language section of the New Books Network. Cummins' online intro to the podcast opens with this bit of snark:

In linguistics, if a book is ever described as a “must read for X”, it generally means that (i) it is trenchantly opposed to whatever X does and (ii) X will completely ignore it. Alexander Clark and Shalom Lappin, Linguistic Nativism and the Poverty of the Stimulus (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011) is described, on its dust-jacket, as a “must read for generative linguists”.  Apparently generative linguists have so far taken the hint.  This is a great pity, as this book is not only very pertinent, but also succeeds in eschewing most of the polemical excess that tends to engulf us all in this field.

Richard Sproat, who contributed the cited jacket blurb, quipped in an email that "Apparently I did you a disservice by saying it was a must read".

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Stupid robot-generated spambook garbage

Last October 24 the brilliant Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking, Fast and Slow was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. And on the same day another book was also published, by an alleged publisher called CreateSpace: It was called Fast and Slow Thinking, and advertised as having an author named Karl Daniels.

Only it is not really a book. It is a compilation of snippets from Wikipedia articles and the like, dressed up like a book. Edited by robots for you to buy by mistake. It's a spam book, part of the "gigantic, unstoppable tsunami of what can only be described as bookspam" that I spoke of last June. It was created purely to swim in the wake of the Kahneman book and snap up some spilled morsels of money. It's not a commercial success: its sales rank is 359,109; but people have bought it. Some regretful consumers talk about it on the Amazon page. Targeted spam pseudobooks! Is it just me, or is the world getting scummier and scummier as day follows day?

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Boko Haram and Peggy burrito

From California, Julie Wei sends me "tidbits:  curious words":

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DARE

Time to celebrate the appearance of the last volume (5) of the Dictionary of American Regional English! Brief account on my blog, here; more extensive account on DARE's site, here.

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A multilingual book trailer

These days, newly published books often get promoted with video trailers, and there's one that just came out for Michael Erard's Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners. In keeping with the book's theme of hyperpolyglottery, Erard rounded up speakers of different languages to create a multilingual reading of a story told in his book. (Direct link here — that's me at 1:05.)

And there's a contest! Here are the details from the trailer description:

How good are you at identifying spoken languages? I asked friends from all over to say one line of a story about Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti, and all the lines are assembled here. Send an email message with 1) the name of each language and 2) in the order in which they appear to info@babelnomore.com, and I'll put your name in a drawing for a signed copy of Babel No More. Deadline is February 23.

I'll keep the comments closed until the deadline to keep anyone from divulging the names of the languages. Good luck!

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The unbearable loss of words

Everyone has a private terror—often abetted by a checkered family medical history or having witnessed the torment of a loved one—of being struck with some particular affliction. For some, it's the ravages of a slow and painful cancer. For others, it's being caught in a freak accident that renders them quadriplegic in their prime. For me, it's the fear of surviving a stroke that blasts away tracts of neural tissue in the left hemisphere of my brain, leaving me with profound aphasia.

As usual, the degree of fear is based on a calculus of probability and of loss. In my case, there is the specter of probability: My father suffered a fatal stroke in his sixties. His own father, unluckier, was bedridden after a stroke in his early forties until another one finished him off a few years later. But it's the prospect of the loss that is overwhelming. How could I, ardent worshipper at the altar of language, ever cope with being left unable to talk or write fluently about language or anything else? For that matter, would I even be able to think about language? Or think in any meaningful way at all? It's the afflictions that strip you of who you are that seem most unthinkable.

So it was a sense of morbid attraction that led me to Diane Ackerman's newest book One Hundred Names for Love, in which she documents the stroke and subsequent language deficit suffered by her husband, novelist Paul West.

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Green's Dictionary of Slang: An Appeal

In the April 3, 2011 issue of the New York Times Book Review, I appraised Jonathon Green's wonderfully comprehensive three-volume reference work, Green's Dictionary of Slang (GDoS to its friends). I concluded the review essay thusly:

It's a never-ending challenge to keep up with the latest developments in the world of slang, but that is the lexicographer’s lot. Green plans to put his dictionary online for continuous revision, which is indeed the direction that many major reference works (including the O.E.D.) are now taking. In the meantime, his monument to the inventiveness of speakers from Auckland to Oakland takes its place as the pièce de résistance of English slang studies. To put it plain, it’s copacetic.

Now, at year's end, it turns out that Green's plan to make GDoS available online has run into some trouble. He asked me to post the following appeal on Language Log, responses to which should be directed to him (email address below).

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